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Helmsdale

THE story of the east coast port of Helmsdale is linked inextricably to the dark days of the Sutherland Clearances.

A statue in the village entitled The Emigrants commemorates the thousands of Scots who were forced to leave the Highlands during the 19th century when the land was cleared to make way for sheep.

The statue was commissioned by Dennis MacLeod, a local man who made his fortune in gold-mining in South Africa, and was unveiled in 2007 by Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, who said it celebrated Scots’ triumph over adversity.

Although many of those cleared from the straths ended up overseas, others were resettled in coastal communities such as Helmsdale and earned a living from the fishing industry. At the height of the herring boom there were over 200 boats working out of Helmsdale harbour.

At the heart of the village is Timespan Heritage Centre, which provides an intriguing account of the area and its people. As well as giving an insight into the Clearances, it recalls the famous gold rush of 1869 at nearby Kildonan.

And, thanks to a hand-held audiovisual device called the Sutherland Explorer, available to hire from Timespan, you can follow in the footsteps of those hardy prospectors of more than 140 years ago.

It was in 1868 that Robert Gilchrist discovered gold nuggets in the river bed at Kildonan. Gilchrist, who had spent 17 years in the Australian goldfields, was granted permission by the Duke of Sutherland to pan the gravels. Soon, prospectors were coming from far and wide to seek their fortune.

Over a period of six months in 1869 more than 300 men tried their luck panning for gold in tough working conditions. Makeshift living quarters were constructed and the rough-and-ready settlement became known as Baile an Or – the town of gold.

With its scenic location, Baile an Or is well worth a visit, although there are restrictions on gold-panning to avoid commercial collecting. Details are provided on Kildonan’s information board.

Hiring the Sutherland Explorer will enable you to step back in time and discover Kildonan’s fascinating history. The device is triggered automatically by satellite when you reach given points of the landscape.

Narrated by the actress Isla Blair, the Sutherland Explorer offers a gold-rush experience lasting approximately one-and-a-half hours.

As well as its award-winning museum, Timespan (www.timespan.org.uk) features an art gallery, shop, café and geology garden.

The former Helmsdale Castle, on the site now occupied by Couper Park, was notorious for being the scene of a poisoning tragedy. Shakespeare is said to have based his poisoning incident in Hamlet on this Sutherland legend from the 16th century.
It was at the castle that Isobel Sinclair, wife of Gilbert Gordon of Garty, the Earl of Sutherland’s uncle, poisoned the earl and his wife so that her son, the Earl of Caithness, might succeed to the earldom of Sutherland. The Earl of Caithness, however, also accidentally drank the poison and perished with the Sutherlands.
Over the centuries the castle fell into ruin and it was demolished in the 1970s to make way for a new road bridge over the Helmsdale River.

For more information about Helmsdale’s history as well as present-day life in the village, see the community website www.helmsdale.org

Helmsdale has a choice of restaurants as well as a pub, with tourist accommodation ranging from hotels to a privately-owned hostel which is affiliated to the SYHA.

 

 

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